Great Leaders Don’t Burn Their Ships
When Hernan Cortez landed his fleet in Veracruz to begin his conquest of the Aztec Empire, he told his crew to burn his ships. One officer made the mistake of questioning the order and was immediately killed. As the story goes, the rest of his army sat on the beach, drinking rum, while they watched their fleet burn down in the harbor. Cortez’s army would then go on to conquer large portions of the South American continent, murdering and subjugating everyone in their path.
Cortez’s action to burn his ships is often told as a lesson in decision leadership. The moral is that having an escape plan makes it easy to retreat in the face of a challenge. Without that safety net, we’re more likely to push through the obstacles in front of us. Or as Mark Batterson wrote on the subject, “Plan A people don’t have a Plan B.”
Burn your ships and fully commit to whatever action you intend. It’ll strengthen your resolve and push you to succeed.
These statements are very appealing to many, and at the same time, terrible advice.
Putting aside the fact that Cortez was a despicable human being, who was willing to massacre thousands to enrich himself, sabotaging your escape plan is a ridiculous strategy. It’s parroted out by people who’ve never had to manage complex situations and dynamic environments.
Fully committing to a plan is only worthwhile when you know that it’s the optimal strategy at the start. But here’s the problem with that: (1) Every leader thinks their ideas are perfect, and (2) they very rarely are.
Very few strategies work out as planned. In a complex world, things are often changing. Assumptions prove out to be false and different ideas fall apart. Trying to cling to a first plan, when outside events make it obsolete, is a recipe for failure, not success.
Change is a part of leadership and life. Our goal is not to ignore that, but to build the capability to recover from uncertainty and unexpected issues. If we’re not creating that resilience for our teams, we’re not doing our job as leaders.
Jeff Bezos wrote in his 2015 shareholder letter that there are two types of decisions. The first are irreversible…